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To say Northern Ireland has a lengthy history with whiskey is a massive understatement. In fact, the liquid might very well have been conceived here. Monks from this part of the world were distilling ‘uisce beatha’ since at least the 12th century. The coastal town of Bushmills was granted a license to distill in 1608. Today, its eponymous whiskey brand is recognized as the world’s oldest. So it shouldn’t be too shocking that nearby Belfast has a long-standing tradition of imbibing. Indeed it does. But only recently has the country’s capital city kickstarted a cocktail awakening. A happy set of circumstances over the past several years has primed this scene to soar.
Belfast’s nightlife centers around the Cathedral Quarter, where bustling promenades and cobbled alleys are lined with pubs and dancehalls. Booming music, ranging from Trad to trap blares out of open doorways into the blustery Irish eve. Removed from the raucousness is a palatial parlor hidden on the second floor of the Merchant Hotel. Known simply as The Cocktail Bar, this is ground zero for advanced mixology.
When it opened in 2006, the bar brought to Belfast the sort of seasonal, ingredient-driven routine that was catching fire in places like London, Tokyo, and New York. “The cocktails and service they offered hadn’t been done before and it really made the bars in the city up their game or be left behind,” observes Chris Wolsey, who owns and operates Bootleggers bar and restaurant two blocks south. "In 2010 [they] won Best Bar at the Tales of the Cocktail awards. For a bar from ‘little ole’ Belfast to win was just crazy.”
The brains behind Merchant’s bar—Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry—left town shortly thereafter, opening the Dead Rabbit in lower Manhattan to international acclaim. In their wake remains a whopping 102-page cocktail menu that reads literally like a book. Styles of drinks are broken down into chapters including, Rich and Fruity, Long and Refreshing, Elegant and Refined. Beyond mere tasting notes and ingredients the tome expands, at length, upon the history of classic arrangements contained therein.
At Bootleggers, Wolsey has taken a slightly less exhaustive—if not equally as thoughtful— approach. Unique victuals with cheeky names are seamlessly woven from unlikely parts. How The Cookie Crumbles, for example, uses banana oat milk and a cold brew coffee liqueur to deepen the sweetness of a bourbon washed with milk and cookies. The Pineapple Express combines rum with a house-infused pineapple gin to arrive at a tropically-themed sour.
“Belfast benefits from the great amount of local spirits we have on our doorstep,” Wolsey contends. “Beyond the usual suspects like Bushmills and Jameson, there’s also loads of great small craft distilleries as well. Places like Boat Yard Gin, Copeland Gin, Dunville’s Whiskey and Ban Poitín—to name a few.” That last liquid (pronounced: PUUT-cheen) is a distinctly Irish beverage most similar to white dog—or non-aged—whiskey here in the States. In Belfast you’d forever find it lining the shelves of any dive. But Bootleggers ups its craft cocktail value by fashioning fruit macerations with the spirit.
One of the greatest indicators of the city’s burgeoning credentials is how you can now find a specific sort of bar to cater to each style of drinking. “When I want a boilermaker and music, I head to Harp Bar,” says Darryl McNally, a prominent local distiller who worked with McGarry and Muldoon to develop Dead Rabbit Irish Whiskey. “If it’s drinks with history and heritage I’m after, I’ll pull up a chair at Crown [Liquor Saloon]. For a quiet evening with the wife, I’ll order a Penicillin at The Merchant—made with one of my whiskeys, of course.” The hotel also opened Bert’s, a jazz bar with an Art Deco flair.
For a kitschier take on a vintage vibe, there’s the Duke of York: rare labels of whiskey stand in front of walls crowded with bygone liquor adverts, tchotchkes, and other assorted ephemera. Want high volume and great craic? Set your sights on the Spaniard. At the Dirty Onion, warmed specialities such as Hot Buttered Rom and Toddies are turned out around a peat-fueled fire. And for a sense of how far Belfast has progressed, check out the Sunflower Public House. This no-nonsense dive in city centre retains a security cage at its front entrance, a sobering holdover from The Troubles.
But today that all feels like ancient history. “Belfast is the place to be at the minute,” confirms Helen Mulholland, master blender at Bushmills Distillery. “It’s incredibly vibrant and cocktail culture is so current. There are fantastic bars moving into our five-star hotels [The Fitzwilliam, The Merchant, Culloden Estate]. But my personal favorite is Robinsons. I think drinking whiskey is all about friendship, and this place is quite cozy and friends-oriented.”
In fact, Belfast is receiving quite a few acquaintances these days. After serving as the backdrop for much of the Game of Thrones series, the city and its surrounding landscape has observed a significant uptick in annual visitors. Thankfully there’s now plenty of proper drinks to go around. “It was only a matter of time,” Wolsey reasons. “We’re ready to put our unique stamp on the world’s cocktail map.” They’ve only had 400 years to hone the craft. Better late than never.